When Can You Joke About Immigration?

Last night at the Oscars, Sean Penn announced the winner of Best Picture. Birdman was directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who also happens to be Mexican. Before Penn announced González Iñárritu, he made a "joke" to the effect of "who gave this guy a green card?"

Twitter blew up, but González Iñárritu has since said he was fine with the joke. I personally had very mixed feelings about it all. When I first saw the clip, I may have audibly gasped. But then I noticed a picture of the two men from 2003 when they filmed 21 Grams together. Oh, they know each other.

Here's the thing: I love to joke and laugh, and most of my closest cross-cultural relationships have included jokes about race and culture. There are a thousand things I describe to Billy that he laughs and says, "Could you be any whiter right now?" And Lord help us when I found out he was my "alien relative." We joke because race and culture are not taboos in our house.

But it's a fine line, right? How do you know when you're being offensive? And should you care? Many are quick to criticize our "PC-culture" and claim that we should be able to joke about touchy topics without everyone taking it so seriously.

Personally, I think humor is valuable, even in complex and sensitive topics. But I believe strongly in sensitivity and that the best jokes don't offend the marginalized.

The Who

Chiding about someone's immigration status can only happen in a safe relationship. Two friends hanging out and joking, "Who gave you a green card?" is a totally different story than a presentation at an awards show with millions of on-lookers who are not part of (or even aware of) any relationship.

The When & Where

It simply wasn't time or the place. The Oscars was already being criticized for lack of diversity, and jokes about race serve to dismiss the serious questions and offend those are already experiencing exclusion. A green card joke hits hard in a sensitive spot for many, many families in this country, and coming from such a large platform is in poor taste.

The Wondering

While I can't speak for González Iñárritu, I do have to wonder if he was really as cool with the comment as he says. I have witnessed Latinos whose culture encourages them to sidestep their true emotions in an effort to blend in, avoid conflict, and show respect. I certainly can't say that's what was happening here, but the director did make some interesting comments of his own.

First, he returned his own quip, saying "Maybe next year, the government will inflict some immigration rules (on) the Academy. Two Mexicans in a row, that's suspicious, I guess."

He also closed out his comments with these eloquent words: "I want to dedicate this award for my fellow Mexicans, the one who live in Mexico. I pray that we can find and build the government that we deserve. And the ones that live in this country who are part of the latest generation of immigrants in this country, I just pray that they can be treated with the same dignity and the respect of the ones who came before and (built) this incredible immigrant nation."

González Iñárritu might say he was okay with the joke, but he definitely made his own statement. Ultimately, I hope his call for just treatment of immigrants will get more attention than Penn's thoughtless comments.

As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts.

Image credit: Denise P.S.


  1. Nadia (la esposa de Byron)3:43 PM

    In our family, we are still very sensitive and careful making immigration jokes. Both, Byron and I are very well aware about how each of us is feeling. Byron feels a lot of pain for the plight of his people. I'm Jewish, who grew up in Russia and experienced some offensive jokes about my people. When I moved to Israel and had to listen to jokes about "Russian immigrants".

  2. Thank you for sharing your comment. You are exactly right, and it's so important that when we're in relationship with others, we pay attention to those sensitive topics that cannot be joked about. It's even more reason why public figures should not joke from public platforms. I appreciate your words.


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